The human brain has a natural tendency to give weight to (and remember) negative experiences or interactions more than positive ones—they stand out more. Psychologists refer to this as negativity bias. “Our brains are wired to scout for the bad stuff” and fixate on the threat, says psychologist and author Rick Hanson.
“The brain handles positive and negative information in different hemispheres” of the brain, explains author and Stanford professor Clifford Nass. Negative emotions generally involve more thinking and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones, says a nytimes.com article. “Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events—and use stronger words to describe them—than happy ones.” Bad emotions, bad memories, bad feedback and bad impressions all have more impact.
Our work lives are filled with evidence of how easy it is to fixate on the negative:
- When your boss (who frequently praises your efforts and work) expresses concern over one aspect of your project, you can’t stop thinking about it
- A long-time customer blows up on social media when the normal first-rate service isn’t up to par
- Out of 50 online product reviews, you see two that are bad and don’t buy the item
- At an impromptu speaking moment, you lost your train of thought and assume everyone noticed your case of the jitters
- A new co-worker talked too much and shared a lot of awkward personal information on her first day and now you steer away from her
There are myriad other examples. But, if we’re all prone to negativity, how is it that some people seem to see the bright side more easily? What are they doing differently? And how can we learn to think this way?
Be aware and focus more on the positive
Like all innate biases, it turns out that knowing of our human predilection for negativity might just be part of our ticket to more positive thinking and interactions. Because “the difficulty isn’t that we have negative thoughts. The problem comes when we believe our thoughts are true” Psychologytoday.com.
Consider your thinking habits by paying close attention for a few days. Experts recommend not judging yourself harshly while doing this, but rather, simply noticing your thinking patterns—looking at them objectively and openly. Labeling your thoughts may help, “When my boss gives me corrective feedback, I feel less confident about my work.” Did she say your work was bad? No … just that there was a more efficient way to do it. Noticing what you’re feeling and why is a great step toward letting go of needless worry and negativity.
Buddhist monk Henepola Gunaratana offers these words of advice when doing any analysis of self: “Somewhere in this process you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels barreling pell-mell down the hill utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The real difference is that you have confronted the situation they have not.”
After you’ve spent a little time paying attention, you can take the next step to retrain your brain to be happier and more positive. Consciously focusing on and experiencing positive situations more thoroughly, actually helps build new neural structures in your brain, suggests pscyhologytoday.com. When you experience something pleasant or happy, linger on it for 5 seconds or more (similar to the way someone might obsess about something bad that happens). “By doing this periodically, you will rewire your brain, making it more likely to notice positive things in the future.”
Barbara Markway, Ph.D. for psychologytoday.com offers the additional suggestion of taking a step back and considering your negative thoughts. Are they helpful? Are they true? Are them important?
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